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6 challenges in 3 years; a story of survival and self-discovery

Written by Steph 21 July 2017

6 challenges in 3 years; a story of survival and self-discovery

On the 27th October, 2014, my son, Christopher, then aged six, passed away. Although he had had a serious heart condition since his birth, his death, nevertheless, was totally unforeseen – the grief was, and is, indescribable; the trauma resultant, total.

Consequently, the first year after his death was a blur; it remains somewhat hazy although I can recall, quite clearly, that I was by the end of it most definitively in a bit of a mess, physically (I could not have predicted that the consequences of grief could be physical, as well as mental, but they most certainly are): my breathing, which had never been good, had almost collapsed, I was completely and utterly exhausted, fatigued really, and suffering from all sorts of ‘brain fevers’ (a suitable term I think to describe the mental onslaught grief incurs; I read it, only recently, as used by Arthur Conan Doyle in his Holmes stories, to describe characters affected by extreme stress – it seemed fitting.)


Trekking way of life MAblockquoteAround the same time, in September 2015, the Glasgow Children’s Hospital Charity, the charity linked to the hospital that Christopher attended, was holding their annual 10K walk; my family and I signed up for the walk; concurrently we set up the Christopher Angus Fund with the charity, as a focus for what was then, unforeseen fundraising. When I was handing in the money raised from the 10K, they mentioned that they were arranging other trekking opportunities, in China and the Arctic. I signed up, virtually there and then – out of some primal survival instinct I think; I needed to do something, about my condition, my circumstances, my life…and, I’d always wanted to see China.

This one instinctive ‘life saving’ act led to another, and ultimately initiated a five year plan (which, by the time I realised I was doing it, I was already two years into): to complete six treks in three years, all within five years of my son’s death.

Six treks – my son’s age.
michael walks on great wallThe impetus fundamentally is twofold: to survive grief of this nature, one simply has to ‘get on’, for the choice is stark: sink or swim (or in trekking terms: walk, or stall); but - the greater impetus is this: when my son died, at his funeral I felt obliged to find that one thing to say, which might coalesce the essence of the appalling circumstances into something positive – I was hardly lucid, yet lucidity was gifted to me: if the world balances, if there is equilibrium in all things, then the good must equal, or indeed, outweigh the bad; imagine then, what good must come from this most awful and immeasurable bad…
As my training progressed, and as I grew stronger, after I completed my first self-initiated trek challenge, to complete the West Highland Way in May 2016, I realised, at some point thereabouts, that this predicted ‘good’ is not going to happen by itself; I have to make it happen – and the by-product may well be that by doing good, good primarily for others, I do good for me: and by so doing, I learn to live again. One dies when ones child dies; one’s life ends, and I don’t mean metaphorically. The point and purpose to life evaporates, and yet: one continues to breathe – it is a stasis state, an unreal existence, breathing without living – and I could have remained in that state, I could still descend into it yet, if I do not engineer and persist with my own resurrection.

The spark then, for the decision: I wish I could say it were something as simple as: that I trek for and on behalf of my son. There is an element of truth in that, but I do so more for altruistic reasons, to help others, most decidedly, but most of all: to help me – my son’s death was loss enough; I doubt he would wish to see his father expire before his time, not on his account. Life must go on…

Therefore, the spark, though I did not cognitively realise it at the time, was to maintain life’s spark – for otherwise, what point living? 

You completed the Great Wall of China trek last year (2016) and you are planning to do the Trek the Rockies later this year (2017) and Trek the Canyons next year (2018). What made you choose these particular challenges?

I can’t say my trek challenge choices are born of a love for all things natural – it’s not nature per se therefore that has provoked my choices; rather, I am drawn to more extreme landscapes, or landscapes that are unique or contain some dynamic aspect or feature. That’s one reason – there is another which is much more straightforward: although I have travelled a fair amount, my travelling has been work orientated and more focussed towards urban centres. These challenge locations are places I’ve never seen, but have always wished to see, though out-with what I would consider ‘normal’ travelling; they are in fact places which I thought I’d never see.

I’m fulfilling unforeseen bucket list items therefore – and each comes with additional bonus wish-fulfilment features: on the China trek, as well as traversing the Great Wall, the excursion included opportunity to visit Beijing, and go to Tian’enmen Square and the Forbidden City; on the Grand Canyon trek the excursion includes opportunity to visit Las Vegas (where I hope not to lose a fortune [I have never gambled…]); on the Rockies trek I may get to see a bear; and for my final proposed trek, the Lava Trail in Iceland, I get to visit the Blue Lagoon. This final choice is partly based on difficulty rating – it shall be my toughest challenge; but it seemed also the most fitting – I am visualising myself floating in the warm and misty mysterious waters of the Blue Lagoon, as the moment most appropriate, to mark the conclusion of my six trek ambition.

bw sillouette of great wallWhat made you choose Discover Adventure?

Actually, it was providential – I was originally signed up by the charity to do another Great Wall of China trek, with another company, but it was cancelled due to lack of uptake. But by then I’d already committed to raising funds for the charity, so two other Great

 Wall trek options were presented to me, the Discover Adventure trek being one. The dates were more suitable so that is why I chose Discover Adventure – but as it has turned out, it has been a long welcomed decision. Discover Adventure have been simply tremendous in supporting me, the China trek was faultlessly managed, exemplary really, and signing up for further treks has been as easy, and effortlessly straightforward - I feel I am in safe and caring hands.

You are fundraising for Glasgow Children’s Hospital- why are you raising money for this particular charity?

Throughout his life, my son was an outpatient at the Glasgow Royal Hospital for Children; it was by their phenomenal care for my son that we had the time that we had with him. The Glasgow Children’s Hospital Charity support the hospital, specifically by funding initiatives that the hospital could otherwise not afford – it’s lifesaving, what they do. If I can contribute to their efforts, I may help save a life … and, in turn, that would save others from having to endure the loss of their child.

I signed up there and then MAblockquoteSupporting this charity is easy…

What was your favourite part of the Great Wall of China trek?

This is by far the toughest question, because there are so, so many – the people, especially; the place itself; the food; the chat; the sights, and the sounds; the wall, what an amazing thing to see; the last days trekking, climbing to heaven; Beijing; the cultural lectures from our guide Alan; the foot massage at the treks conclusion…the list goes on and on and on.

But, despite how wonderful all these things were, there were other, perhaps less visceral moments that affected me very deeply; profound moments, that will stay with me forever – and these must be cited as my favourite parts of the trek.

The first was talking to a fellow trekker, sharing a moment of open and honest revelation about grief and loss. The second, and my most treasured memory, is of the ‘pilgrimage’ day, as I like to think of it. It was the third day of the trek – we climbed to this one particular location on the ancient wall; there were the 
remains of a watchtower, a flat plateau, upon which we were invited to sit and reflect upon why we were there…for five full minutes. Five minutes; I sat, and silently cried my heart out. This may seem a strange thing to cite, as a favourite moment, but this grief is contradictory by its nature. It’s not easy to grieve, but it is necessary – and it needs almost to be orchestrated; and that is exactly what happened. I didn’t see it coming, but I can only applaud the support team who invited us to do this most profound thing, to look outwards at the horizon and take a moment…
good luck from GCHC
Five minutes, sitting in silence - under other circumstances, this could have felt like a lifetime – but I could have sat there all day.



What was the toughest moment of the challenge?

I’ve taken some time to think this question over – my first reaction was to focus upon the obvious: the trekking – but the trekking wasn’t tough. I don’t mean to sound obtuse: what I mean is: it was tough, yes - it was a challenge after all - but I expected the trekking to 

be tough, and that some days would be tougher than others, and yes, they were – especially the last. But I don’t retain any memory of these moments as being ‘tough’ – they are wonderful memories, proud memories, of fulfilment, that grow in stature as time passes. 

What was tough was eating with chopsticks (despite training with them for almost six months) – they can be unbelievably temperamental – and: trying to spread frozen butter onto a soft roll with a plastic 

knife, with ones armed pinned to ones side sitting on a long haul flight, first thing in the morning after hardly sleeping all night: now that was really tough. Talk about patience…

michael with son resizeHow do you keep yourself motivated when training / the challenge itself gets tough?

That’s kind of easy; I’ve been death motivated. This may seem like a rather strange thing to say, but it is most definitely accurate. Some inner engine just keeps driving me on – I’ve discovered a tenacity I did not know I had. It must have always been there, but since my son’s death I’ve been blessed with all manner of discoveries, not least that I have infinitely more discipline and seIf-determination than I thought.

However, I am also a born procrastinator, so I help myself along by telling others what I’m doing, or what I’m planning to do: it’s a self-shaming technique; I couldn’t imagine admitting that I didn’t do what I set out to do. And certain friends have been invaluable, by their ever present companionship.

Vanity also helps – the greater amount of training I do, the less huffing and puffing I’ll do on the trek – and the better I’ll look in the photos. And I will enjoy it more, if I’ve trained properly. And, good things breed good things: I’ve now been sponsored by a company: PAMOJA, a company that works with charities in developing countries; to help them improve the impact they have on people's lives..

michael in kilt standing on mountain resize

Altogether, I guess I’m committed, in the broadest sense of the word, to and by myself, and to others.   

As for the treks themselves, I made a further commitment to myself: that I would not complain – about anything (with the provisor that if I do, I’m not actually ‘complaining’ as such: I’m ‘describing’…) I think that has actually helped more than I realise, to keep my mind right – because there are definitely times trekking, when you have to put your head down, lift your spirits up and just keep going…


All the challenges you’re partaking in are treks; what would your top three pieces of advice be for budding challenge trekkers?

1: Remember to go slow and steady (especially on the slopes); there is no hurry. Chances are that mountain or trail or wall or whatever has been there for some time, and will still be there even long after you are gone – and it’s not a race; the sooner you finish the trek, the sooner it is all over. Savour the moment. Going too fast will only leave you exhausted and you’ll have missed the best bit…being there.

2: Remember the basics – you end up with a lot of gear, and bits of kit, and all kinds of other things, walking poles, buffs, gators, sprays and ointments and lots and lots of layers – it can all get a bit distracting, from the few fundamentals that you really must remember: to keep hydrated (drink, drink, drink), to keep eating (snack, snack, snack), and to take care of your feet, feet, feet! Blisters you do not want…

  1. Remember why you are there…


Fundraising Glasgow Childrens Hospital MAblockquote

How do you find time for training?
The only training for walking is walking apparently, which is obviously time consuming. Overall, I allowed myself therefore a whole year to train, to get fit. I spread the training out, as a basic plan, to do lots of little walks in between lots of longer ones.

Looking back, I think the short intervening walks were invaluable – I made these work with my daily routine – through the week, to just get up a bit earlier, catch an earlier train, get off a stop, or sometimes two, before my usual stop, and walk. Sometimes these were only 20 or 30 minute walks, but I suspect they kept my fitness level equitable.

For the longer training walks, again, I just try and use my time better, and simply priortise the training – that’s all there is to it. Thankfully my family have been fully supportive – either that, or they just want me out the house!

I’ve also kept a diary of my training, and made a facebook blog post for every piece of training I do – this I suppose might be better included in the question as regards motivation - certainly though, this gives me additional purpose, 

michael training by mountains and lake resize

that the training is not purely training; there is a record being made, perhaps that might hold some future value, based upon a simple premise: that every step counts, as does every word. 

What is the one thing that you could’ve have completed the challenge without, and that you will be taking on your upcoming trips and why?
Apart from all the usual gear, walking boots clearly being the priority, I took my kilt. The logic is simple: one cannot whimper in a kilt. I discovered this to be true on the West Highland Way. I wore it on the last day of the trek, when I really was suffering – my knees were buckling, my feet were in agony, my energy levels were pretty low, and my mood was decidedly fractious but, nevertheless: pride, and vanity are suitable antidotes: I could not let down myself nor my nation, not if I wore a kilt. Imagine, the sight of a man in a kilt crying? 50,000 people a year do the West Highland Way, and very few are Scottish – what would they think, any stranger to these shores, if they were to witness, perhaps for the first or only time in their life, a 6ft plus hairy kilted Scotsman: whimpering? 
I think, therefore, that what I took with me that I could not have done without was my heritage… I’m a MacDonald of Clanranald - we fought at the battle of Bannockburn! (Admittedly, such bravado did not extend to taking my kilt to the Arctic…)

And, if I might also add one other item: I took something of Christopher’s, something he touched, that could also touch me: his Tae Kwon Do belt.

What are you looking forward to most about the trek the Rockies and trek the Canyons challenges?
michael with team on wall resizeI know the scenery will be amazing, I know that I’ll delight in discovering how much stronger I’ve become, I know I’ll feel pride in completing the challenge – but more than anything, I’m looking forward to me

eting people, and being with people at their absolute best. No one does these treks by accident – everyone is doing so for altruistic reasons.

In China, my first ‘group’ trek, it was profoundly moving to find myself conscripted into such a band of individuals – and that was such a moment for me, it provoked a fundamental shift in the monopoly that grief holds over me – because I met others, who were fighting their own battles, and though their wounds differed from mine, their cause was the same. Their sharing of their stories lifted me out of my all-consuming grief, albeit momentarily – but it was a pivotal moment.

I am most definitely stronger, physically, for completing the trek – but emotionally? I wish that I could put a figure on it, how good it was for me to do this specific trek. Likely the next treks will differ, but I doubt I shall ever tire of such company, in such circumstances - and that is hardly a challenge, for these challenges are, truly, gifts, gifts of immeasurable value.Learn to live again MAblockquote

The big question, what made you come back to do more?

There are many, many reasons – for one thing, I’ve developed a love for trekking, and I never thought I’d say that. I’ve never been an outdoors type person, I’ve never trekked in my life – my first day of training, about a year before the China trek, I walked for twenty minutes, pretty much collapsed and couldn’t get back to my car. But it becomes addictive – the walking, and the treks themselves, they are such focussed activities; nothing 

interferes – it’s simple, you have with you just the things you need, to do what you need to do.

This discovery has been an unforeseen bonus, this love of trekking. Initially, as mentioned before, signing up for these treks was an act of survival; now it’s become a way of life – a way of life which makes infinitely more sense than my way of life before my son died. Although I may be sad, I’m walking, talking, making new friends, raising funds, getting fitter, seeing the world and doing good for others. I can’t believe I didn’t do this before – but then again, before my son died I had no reason to; I’m ashamed, really, of that person that I was. But now – now, I’m a different person, a better person I hope; and life has

 offered me a chance to prove that, to use my time for infinitely better purpose – I wish that I could do more…


 If you want to support Michael, and help him to achieve his goal, head over to his Just Giving page to donate!